I’ve written about many openings in the city as well as more than a few closures over the last four-and-a-half years. Some of the closures shocked me and some have hit on a personal level. None quite compare to this one. It’s more personal. It’s just a little closer.
I’ve known Kristen Faerber since she was a small child and when Urban Woman and I moved downtown just a bit over five years ago, we re-connected. She was selling amazing prepared foods out of the familiar Just Ripe vending trailer. Once I heard she and Charlotte intended to open a small grocery store downtown I probably drove Kristen crazy asking, “How much longer?” for months.
The store finally opened 3 1/2 years ago in the Daylight building and we were delighted to have fresh, local food nearby. Again we drove both Kristen and Charlotte crazy with our questions about food. We had a lot to learn. And we did learn. As a result of having met these two young women and having access to their store for three-and-a-half years, we will never again eat the same. What they’ve taught us about food has changed our lives and I’m sure we are not unique.
When Just Ripe opened, Kristen and Charlotte had visions of providing healthy, locally sourced foods, but as Kristen put it, “It was never really our ambition to own our business, which I realize sounds a little crazy since we started a business.” They hoped to start a worker co-operative. “At the beginning, we set out to open a worker-owned cooperative, wherein the people who work in the store own and operate the store. We thought we could open the store as the initial owners and then grow the ownership to include our staff over time. It was always our intention to sell the store, but we originally planned to sell it to our staff.” It didn’t turn out that way. It became a business with everything that entails.
During the store’s first couple of years the two attempted to offer a model that proved unsustainable. While the store was often packed, the products selling best had the smallest profit margins and were the most labor intensive. The number of employees commensurately swelled and with that came increased turnover and time-intensive training. The store lost large amounts of money.
A year-and-a-half ago the business model shifted and a stream-lined version emerged. An emphasis on southern-made products and pared-down offerings of freshly-made items allowed a natural attrition of the staff. No one was laid off as a result of the changes and, despite the large number of employees – the actual number is thirty-three – who have come and gone during the three-and-a-half years, virtually everyone has left of their own accord to pursue other interests.
With a smaller staff and increased hours by Kristen and Charlotte, the store became profitable in 2014. As Kristen described it, “. . . we found a little bit of a sweet spot, offering a fair amount of food service, refining our “grocery” to focus on delicious Southern-made food products as well as some grocery staples . . .” While the business became profitable, Kristen and Charlotte continued to work long hours with no pay check.
The potential may be there for growth in the right hands. One local developer has mentioned a move to a larger space to expand the concept, which could help with economies of scale. Similarly, inquiries have been made from other cities in the region regarding the possibility of replicating the concept in their areas. As for the local food scene, it’s growing along with the downtown population and it may be that growing support for the concept is on the way. The lease on the space is transferable and continues for another year with a three-year renewal option. Kristen stated, “We are hoping we can find someone to buy the business as a whole, keeping a lot of the same principles and product types, but expanding on what is successful and popular in their own way.”
Last night the two gathered friends and supporters to offer cocktails made from fresh ingredients, cheeses, nuts, crackers and pastries available or produced in the store. It was a way to say “thank-you” to friends and to Kenneth, Jill, Lauren and Matt, their excellent staff, and served as an opening farewell of sorts. Kristen discussed the history of the store, detailed the unexpected twists along the way, saying that while the two of them will not continue to own the store, they “hope that will not mean the end of the business.”
As it had never been their intention to operate a business on this model, a year or so ago they began to consider selling it. Quiet inquiries have led to sometimes promising conversations, but no sale at this time. They are now reaching out publicly seeking to find someone who would love to own the businesses as it is and perhaps build on its potential. If you or someone you know is interested in discussing purchasing the business, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They asked their gathered friends and supporters to help them find a buyer to continue operating the store in the city, saying, “We really would like Just Ripe to continue to exist in our downtown. We love the store and love what it offers to our urban environment.” They will continue to conduct business as usual for a couple more months, but if within that time they are unable to find a buyer, they will close.
Given the stress of opening a business, operating with a loss, re-organizing, dealing with staff issues and working long hours for no pay, it’s remarkable that the two have maintained their friendship throughout. Still, they are ready to move on. Charlotte is increasingly involved in the management of Nourish Knoxville, while Kristen is considering a number of options, but knows that she wants to rediscover her “love to share food with friends and family.”
It’s a chapter of their lives they are ready to close. Both are young, bright and talented and will no doubt find a situation that makes them happy and from which they can continue to make a contribution as they have done so richly through this five-year journey. I’ve benefited greatly from their work over the last years and look forward to seeing what happens next for each of them.
The store is open and needs your continued support. They don’t want you to be sad for them – they feel very good about moving on – but they need you to take advantage of their great locally and regionally-sourced goods. Consider doing some of your Christmas shopping in the store – they have a great selection of gift baskets and other items for sale.
Primarily, if you know a potential buyer, please pass the word. I will certainly be hoping someone takes their hard work and builds on what they’ve accomplished. It would be a shame to see downtown lose such a valuable asset.